ALBERT BIERSTADT: On A Grand Scale
So, you say you never heard of Albert Bierstadt, eh? That's what you think. You probably know his work, though you may not think of him right away. His story is unusual. No starving pauper, this artist; no tragic life to season his talent, no false modesty to obscure his life's work. But his was a rare genius.
Bierstadt was born in Prussia, the sixth child of a hardworking cooper (basically, a barrel maker). Although he started giving art lessons almost as soon as he taught himself to draw, Bierstadt's drawings were considered so bad that the Düsseldorf Academy rejected his application to attend. But he did eventually, by sheer observation and hard work, become an accomplished painter.
In 1856, Bierstadt began to paint the Alps, and to develop a keen knack in his painting of "the Sublime" (nature). He returned to the United States and fell in love with the West. It was big, wild, free, and the stuff of legends. His world was starving for knowledge, for understanding of the American West. As he began to place that spirit on canvas, his career took off.
How he painted! The bigger and more awesome, the better. Storms. Mountains. Rivers. Nature. They were staggering, thrilling, and magnificent. They were huge! The size of the pieces (one of them 8 feet by 12 feet) lent realism to his majestic mountains and scenes. He gave Americans their first real feel of a "Wild West" they could only imagine, and exactly the way they wanted it.
The creation of this beauty was Bierstadt's unique talent, and he became enormously successful. The details of his work looked so perfectly like real scenes that they were widely acclaimed as the real thing, and they earned huge sums of money for the day.
The remarkable and realistic detail which was so key to the success of his early career, eventually led to disillusionment in his work on a grand scale, and to his eventual fall from recognition as a world-class painter. It seems that as the world traveled and saw the real thing, it felt deceived by his painting, and could not bear the comparison between Bierstadt's West and reality. But today, that has changed.
In 1992, an exhibition of 75 of Bierstadt's paintings traveled around the country to rave reviews. They bring big money now, again, and big crowds. He is no longer considered the great deceiver, but a romantic painter of the highest order. If you are ever interested, the two I love most are "Thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains" and "Merced River, Yosemite Valley".
Anyway, nay-sayers and evil speakers of Bierstadt seem to be of two categories: the resentful, for his personality; and the Ivy League, who cling to the supposed falsehood in his representation of the West. I feel that his irritating personality (relentless pursuit of fame and fortune) had no bearing on his talent. I mean, if you want to see talent and bad personality, look at some of the more famous modern-day movie stars.
But I protest the claim of his falsehood. I believe that few outsiders (non-native folks) can appreciate the spirit he correctly and effectively conveys of the West. I have walked along the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and climbed the Rocky & Chocolate Mountains, and done a thousand things kids raised in the West do. I know this spirit well. This stuff is no cheap imitation.
One look at "Thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains" brings back so many wonderful memories for me. I can still remember breaking camp like it was yesterday, crawling out of my sleeping bag at sunrise to stretch in wind blowing fresh with the bite of snow on it's edge. I recall the smell of frying bacon and the feel of grit in my teeth from the sand I could not keep out of the skillet. I can hear the lid and chain clank against the side of the canteen, and feel the cold metal against my lips. I can still feel the delicious, nearly frozen water go all the way down to my stomach. I can smell the horse and remember rustling around the camp, rolling my equipment in the blanket, tying it to the saddle and bridling the animal. I can remember the gelding grunting patiently as I cinched the saddle. And I can mount up and still feel the muscled stride of Rocky, my horse, and the constant creaking of oiled leather as we wander home.
And… I suppose… for just a moment, I can still feel 18 when I do it…
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OK, OK, you have succeeded in getting me to look up Albert Bierstadt....just as you plannned...and just as inquisitive readers should. What passion comes next?
Yup, my hunch was right...the scene of the Yosemite Valley and the Merced River was the one I had in mind. Of course, he embellished that version, little wonder that the Ivy Leaguers dissed him. But the enchanted Yosemite Valley is still very special.